The panel will see Professor Nabeel Hamdi replaced by chartered engineer Benita Mehra, in a move that Grenfell United believed was ‘snuck out just before Christmas’.
In a post on both the inquiry’s website and on the government’s website, the inquiry confirmed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be replacing Professor Hamdi with Ms Mehra, while inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick said that ‘I am pleased to confirm that I agree to Ms Mehra’s appointment as a member of the panel and I look forward to working with her on Phase 2 of the Inquiry’.
The government meanwhile noted that this has occurred ‘ahead of the commencement of Phase 2 hearings on 27 January’, with Ms Mehra said to be a ‘highly experienced’ chartered engineer. Mr Johnson added: ‘The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is now entering a pivotal stage, expanding its focus from the night of the tragedy to consider important wider issues around the refurbishment and management of the Tower.
‘Today’s appointments will bring a rich diversity of expertise and the relevant experience required given the breadth and complexity of the next phase of the Inquiry. It is important the Inquiry thoroughly investigate what happened that awful night and ensure lessons are learned so that such a terrible tragedy never happens again. This Government’s commitment to uncovering the truth is absolute.’
The Guardian reported however that campaign group Grenfell United, representing the survivors and bereaved from the fire, were ‘angered’ by the panel change, and disappointed that it was ‘snuck out just before Christmas’. Professor Hamdi is an academic ‘with expertise in housing, design and planning’, with Grenfell United claiming it has not been ‘given an explanation for the change’.
Chair Natasha Elcock commented: ‘The change of the panel, with an announcement snuck out just before Christmas, is hugely disappointing. Survivors and bereaved families campaigned for almost a year to have a panel added to the inquiry. We have faith that Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s background means he will be able to address the technical aspects of what happened at Grenfell but the inquiry is lacking experience of what it’s like to live in a community like ours and the culture at the heart of how people living in social housing are treated.
‘We have now lost the panellist with community expertise. He has been replaced with an engineer, which is not what we asked for. With just weeks to go until phase two starts, it feels like yet again the wishes of survivors and bereaved have been sidelined. We have not yet met the panellists, we can only hope our concerns will be proved wrong when we do.’
A government spokesman responded: ‘In May 2019 the government announced its intention to appoint Thouria Istephan and Profe Nabeel Hamdi as panel members. Sadly, Prof. Hamdi has since confirmed that he is unable to continue with the appointment process. He has now been replaced by Benita Mehra, an experienced chartered engineer with broad public and private sector experience, who will be an equally great asset to the inquiry.’
The inquiry’s first phase report was officially released at the end of October 2019, and outlined that the building’s aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was ‘the principal reason’ for fire spread; while also being critical of London Fire Brigade (LFB). Sir Martin called for ‘urgent action’ to improve high rise fire safety, and wanted recommendations ‘implemented without delay’.