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.

In December, the inquiry was paused until 11 January after a positive COVID-19 test was discovered, but The Guardian has now reported that during the hearings this year politicians ‘could be cross-examined about their actions in [the] run-up’ to the 2017 fire. Government ministers have been ‘called’ to give evidence, with ‘key figures’ already asked to ‘provide written statements’.

Additionally, 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 former Prime Minister Mrs May, former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell and former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles could be called, with Mr Fisher confirming the move in a letter to Labour councillors at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

This letter added that ‘the inquiry is currently in the process of deciding which of them should be called to give evidence in person’, Mr Fisher adding: ‘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 The Guardian pointed out ‘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 news outlet added that the inquiry had, pre Christmas, 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’. It noted Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government official Brian Martin – ‘responsible for fire regulations’ – knew that 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 stated that he 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.’

The Guardian also reported on current Building Safety and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh’s call for executives at cladding manufacturer Arconic to ‘step up’ and give evidence at the inquiry, and that they should not ‘hide behind’ an obscure French law. In November, the inquiry 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 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 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. 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 said he 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, with all three citing a rarely used 53 year old French statute in order to refuse attendance for six days of cross examination this month.

Lord Greenhalgh tweeted that it was ‘time for these [Arconic] executives to step up to the plate [and] appear before’ the inquiry ‘rather than hide behind the 1968 French blocking statute’, with the witnesses 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’.