THE GRENFELL inquiry heard that Kingspan staff kept fire test results ‘secret’, while Arconic’s former UK sales manager who sold its combustible cladding for Grenfell said she knew it could burn.

Last month, 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. The inquiry confirmed hearings would be ‘temporarily suspended’, before announcing it would resume hearings remotely from this week.

Last month, it was revealed that Claude Schmidt, president of Arconic, had agreed to give evidence, after Building Safety and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh called for Arconic executives to ‘step up’ and give evidence, 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 December, survivors and bereaved campaign group Grenfell United called for the French government to intervene, so that the executives can ‘face cross-examination’. Alongside former technical manager Claude 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.

Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick addressed the remote hearings, stating that ‘among other things, we’ve had to take into consideration the risk that [in person hearings] would have imposed on essential staff and of course the witnesses, some of whom would have had to travel a considerable distance to attend the hearing’. He called the inquiry’s work ‘urgent’, and said it was ‘determined to resume normal working arrangements as soon as it is safe to do so.

‘We all understand that taking evidence in this way lacks some of the important qualities of a hearing at which witnesses and counsel are physically present and face each other across the room, however the style of questioning will remain the same and we shall expect the witnesses to help the inquiry to the best of their ability’.

Before Arconic’s evidence, ITV News, BBC News and Construction News reported on the final evidence from Kingspan, in which it was heard that its former technical manager Philip Heath – who had already given evidence himself last year – had told staff to let concerns about the K15 insulation ‘gather dust’, after the company was told by the British Board of Agrement (BBA) that there had been ‘a number of comments’ about the clarity of wording on the product’s certificate.

These were raised by the BBA in December 2008, two months after the certificate was first issued, with the BBA suggesting several amendments ‘they offered to make free of charge’, according to emails shown during Kingspan employee Andrew Pack’s evidence. Mr Heath was his boss, and had ‘register(ed) our concern at the proposal to reissue this certificate so soon after publication’, in turn threatening to pass costs incurred onto the BBA when he replied in March 2009.

Mr Heath then forwarded the email chain on to Mr Pack – then technical team manager - and other Kingspan staff with the instruction ‘let the file gather dust guys’. Mr Pack – now a global technical support manager for Kingspan’s Middle Eastern division – agreed with inquiry lawyer Rachel Troup’s assertion that this ‘is a clear instruction to delay the matter of the proposed amendments’.

Asked if fire test reports were ‘almost kept secret’, he replied ‘yes, correct’, adding that ‘throughout my career at Kingspan, when people do fire testing, it has been a case that those test reports have been kept within the people that do that testing. You’d have to ask the people who do that testing why that is, I don’t know’. Ms Troup asked if he had ever asked that question, and he said ‘I have asked the question in the past. I cannot recall the answer from that time’, nor who he had asked.

Mr Pack was also asked how Kingspan had been able to obtain a Local Authority Building Control (LABC) certificate for K15 ‘despite the unclear wording about its fire performance’, and said he ‘did not remember’ receiving Mr Heath’s instruction. He added: ‘I don’t recall the email. I don’t know why I kept getting copied into these emails when I’ve never had any involvement with the BBA or the wording [used]. I do not know.’

He added that the company obtained the LABC certificate ‘without providing any data about fire-test performance’, and had only presented LABC with the BBA certificate and marketing information, while prior to this he ‘did not have access to’ information about the fire performance of K15. Emails between him and Mr Heath on 7 May 2009 showed them confirming final details on the LABC certificate, Mr Heath replying ‘FANBLOODYTASTIC’ before telling other staff it had been obtained.

Questioned about the email Mr Heath sent, Mr Pack said he ‘totally disagreed with it’, adding that ‘we never actually provided any fire-test data other than what was in the BBA test certificate and the literature […] we were never asked to provide any fire test data during the whole course of this process. There was no fire test data given, so I can’t see how we “blocked the server”’.

Ms French’s evidence at the inquiry was reported on by The Guardian, BBC News and The Times, and saw her admit 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, UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, said that the marketing strategy recognised the fire retardant version that ‘drastically increases fire resistance’ was ‘less likely to secure contracts on price’.

Ms French said that she knew the polyethylene (PE) version of the Reynobond product ‘was and is flammable’, with inquiry counsel Richard Millett asking ‘did you ever explain to your customers, in terms, that PE would burn?’. She responded that ‘I don’t recall specifically explaining that to them. If I had been asked the question I would have explained it’, and also said she had not seen building regulations guidance on fire safety, or realised there were ‘different rules’ for taller buildings.

She added that ‘my knowledge on the technical side was very limited. Working for an organisation like Alcoa [Arconic’s former name], it didn’t even enter my head, the question of whether it was or wasn’t suitable. They were a big name company and therefore it was all perfectly suitable for what it needed to do in the UK’.

The inquiry later heard Arconic sought to ‘keep secret’ differences between the 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’, and Mr Millett alleged this was ‘ignored’ by Arconic.

In response, Ms French said she had never been told about the failure but agreed it was a ‘very serious omission’, making a subsequent BBA certificate ‘significantly misleading’ for customers. The inquiry also heard how Arconic technical manager

The inquiry also heard how Mr Wehrle ordered Ms French not to release information to customers about the differences between the PE and fire retardant versions, with an email she sent asking him if she could share a document with Arup about the differences seeing him reply: ‘OH MY LORD!!! Where did you get that from??? For sure you’re NOT allowed to diffuse to the customer those documents.’

He told her instead to talk about the different fire classification Arconic obtained via the BBA, which said that the panels ‘may be regarded as having class 0 surface’. Mr Millett noted there had been no tests on the PE panels that showed they met the Class 0 classification, and Ms French said she ‘did not know this’.

She added that the company saw the UK market ‘as preferring a slightly cheaper version’ of its cladding ‘albeit with a greater fire risk’, with statements from a series of Arconic managers shown stating that the ‘UK was generally a “PE market”’. Ms French noted that the PE panels were €4 to €5 cheaper per square metre than the fire retardant ones, and had sent an email in June 2014 detailing large construction projects ‘to which she was hoping to sell’ cladding to.

These included the Pendletons development in Salford, where PE was used, as well as towers in Swansea and London, while Grenfell was listed as ‘awaiting an order’ or cladding, and Ms French said that discussions ‘never came up about requiring anything other than a PE core’, noting that it was ‘very, very, very rare’ that customers would ask about fire safety: ‘It was not something that was discussed. The majority of what I dealt with was colours, availabilities and those types of things."

On Arconic’s cooperation with the inquiry, Mr Millett disclosed that it only handed over documents about its involvement with Grenfell in late 2019, after the Metropolitan Police served it with a European investigation order, while the French authorities still believe ‘there was no legal obstacle’ to the three witnesses refusing to give evidence doing so. The French embassy provided a statement saying that France shared the UK’s ‘desire for full light to be shed on that tragic fire’.

Noting that notices had been served on the ‘recalcitrant witnesses’ that could not be enforced in France or Germany, Mr Millett added: ‘Each of these witnesses has been given a final chance to decide whether or not to come to give evidence to the inquiry. They still refuse to come to assist you, I regret to say. The refusal of these witnesses to give evidence is unreasonable.’