THE GRENFELL inquiry is to reveal whether ‘or not’ it can ‘resume as planned’ on Monday 11 January, given the new lockdown announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Housing Today reported that the inquiry is ‘expected to make a statement’ on Wednesday ‘on whether or not it can resume as planned’ from Monday 11 January, ‘in the wake’ of the new COVID-19 pandemic lockdown announced on Monday evening by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The inquiry team ‘is understood to be considering options for restarting sessions’, which had been paused in early December due to an individual testing positive for COVID-19.

The news outlet added that it ‘isn’t clear whether’ the inquiry team ‘may this time consider options for running the inquiry virtually’, as it was suspended during the first national lockdown from mid March to early July 2020. Yesterday, it was revealed that politicians including former Prime Minister Theresa May could be cross examined about their actions at the inquiry this year, while Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh demanded Arconic executives ‘step up’ and testify after refusing.

During the hearings politicians ‘could be cross-examined about their actions in [the] run-up’ to the 2017 fire, with ‘key figures’ already asked to ‘provide written statements’. Some may ‘face detailed questioning in public’ according to inquiry secretary Mark Fisher, with the inquiry not having ‘yet decided which politicians will be asked to give evidence in person’.

In addition to Mrs May, former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell and former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles could be called, Mr Fisher confirming the move in a letter to Labour councillors at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Mr Fisher added: ‘Those government departments who made the relevant decisions, both ministers and officials at various levels, have been asked to provide statements to the inquiry relating to their involvement in the matters under investigation and have done so.’

Both the politicians and civil servants are expected to give evidence in two modules of the inquiry ‘slated to begin’ in autumn and winter 2021, with the first examining the fire’s aftermath, and RBKC’s Labour councillors asked that Mrs May be called to give evidence at this point alongside Mr Barwell and Mr Pickles. Mr Barwell may also be asked to provide evidence for a later module, which will look at government involvement in setting fire safety policy post Lakanal.

Mr Pickles was Communities Secretary in 2013 when the Lakanal inquest concluded ‘with recommendations for the government to review fire safety and building regulations guidance’. Labour was also calling for Brandon Lewis – who was both Housing and Fire Minister pre Grenfell – to give evidence, though ‘it is thought unlikely’ Mrs May would be cross examined, with officials and ‘less senior politicians closer to policy formation more likely to’ be.

The inquiry had heard about materials manufacturers selling combustible products via ‘negotiating often-confusing fire safety regulations set by the government, which were partly policed by privatised testing bodies and building inspectors’. The Guardian noted that Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government official Brian Martin – ‘responsible for fire regulations’ – knew combustible PIR insulation was being used on high rise residential blocks.

Mr Martin had issued a warning in 2014 to the National House Building Council about this, where he stated: ‘People are under the impression that PIR is a material of limited combustibility which it isn’t. You might want to double check with your inspectors that they are on top of this.’

RBKC opposition leader Pat Mason had ‘repeatedly told’ inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick that ministers ‘should give evidence in person and not be seen to be above the law’. He added: ‘For many months at the inquiry we have all listened to a shocking litany of failure, incompetence, corrupt practices, ignorance, and evidence that profit and share price trumped any duty to build safely to protect lives.’

Building Safety and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh called for executives at cladding manufacturer Arconic to ‘step up’ and give evidence, and should not ‘hide behind’ an obscure French law. In November, the inquiry heard four employees were ‘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 they should ‘do the right thing and come and assist’. 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 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 test results were ‘far worse than it had previously admitted’.

In their absence, Mr Millett said he would use Arconic’s witness statements to demonstrate the roles played by the staff and the company. Arconic said at the time that it was ‘working to get assurances’ to help them give evidence, and that these people had taken their own legal advice. In December, survivors and bereaved campaign group Grenfell United called for the French government to intervene, so that the executives can ‘face cross-examination’.

It 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. The group also gathered 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 will ‘empty chair’ the witnesses should they not attend, including reading questions out ‘they should answer’. Lord Greenhalgh ‘escalated’ the issue via Twitter, despite the inquiry having been ‘communicating directly’ with the French government via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to get the witnesses to appear.

Alongside Mr Wehrle, the other witnesses refusing to attend include Peter Froehlich and Gwenaëlle Derrendinger, all citing a rarely used 53 year old French statute to refuse attendance for six days of cross examination. Lord Greenhalgh tweeted it was ‘time for these executives to step up to the plate [and] appear before’ the inquiry ‘rather than hide behind the 1968 French blocking statute’, having ‘ignored warnings’ that not attending ‘runs the risk’ of ‘adverse inference and criticism’.

While two UK based Arconic staff will give evidence, a fourth executive – Claude Schmidt – said he would only if ‘certain conditions’ – not made public – were met, which the inquiry called ‘largely unacceptable’. Grenfell United added that ‘there is no way Arconic staff should be dictating terms about what they are asked or not asked’, while the French government said it ‘did not believe’ that the blocking statute applies.

Arconic in turn said it ‘continues to fully cooperate with the inquiry’, and that ‘the individuals who have declined to participate … have taken the advice of separate counsel and [Arconic] does not have any influence on those decisions’. It added that the three witnesses ‘represented by the company’s counsel are prepared to provide evidence, including Claude Schmidt’.