Along with strong criticism of the London fire brigade, and heartrending testimony about the 72 people who died, the most dramatic finding of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s first phase was that cladding panels fitted around the west London block of flats not only contributed to but “actively promoted” the fire’s rapid spread. On Monday the inquiry’s second phase opened with the revelation that Arconic, the cladding system’s manufacturer, knew five years before Grenfell’s refurbishment that its panels were “not suitable for use on building facades” in Europe because they did not meet safety standards.
When much of the argument about the disaster’s causes is unavoidably technical, involving as it does details of construction contracts and building regulation, such straightforward language has an immediate impact. A series of emails from an Arconic official, cited in a statement from the main building contractor, Rydon, referred to the “bad behaviour” of the Reynobond PE 55 panels when fitted in cassette form – as they were at Grenfell – and added that it expected them to be put “out of market”. The inquiry also heard that Celotex, the company which made the insulation used on Grenfell, was concerned in 2013 about how the material would behave in a fire when used behind cladding.
Arconic gives its opening statement on Tuesday. Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, has spoken of “a merry-go-round of buck-passing”. So far, he said, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Celotex were the only core participants to have accepted any responsibility for the disastrous events of 14 June 2017, with the council admitting that it failed in its duty as a building regulator.
Navigating between rival versions of events, and making recommendations to government, is the challenge now facing the inquiry. It was never likely that the participants were going to make this task any easier unless they were forced to. Arconic and Celotex are subject to civil court proceedings brought by bereaved relatives in the US, which could lead to huge payouts. In the UK, the Metropolitan police are waiting for the inquiry’s conclusions before deciding whether to pursue manslaughter and corporate manslaughter charges, and civil litigation is possible.
But the strength of the evidence presented on day one of the inquiry’s second phase may have the effect of focusing minds. Confidence among victims’ groups has taken a battering in recent weeks, after they discovered what they believed to be a conflict of interest. Benita Mehra, an engineer appointed to the panel created to advise the inquiry’s chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick – a panel that victims fought for – stepped down at the weekend, 10 days after it was revealed that an organisation she led received a £71,000 grant from Arconic’s philanthropic foundation.
Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle died at Grenfell, said relations between the inquiry and the bereaved have moved “10 steps backwards” as a result, and ministers should apologise for a crass oversight as well as find a replacement in short order. Victims are entitled to be furious. But the reality is that, right now, the inquiry is their best chance of getting at the truth about what happened, ensuring that nothing similar happens again, and providing the police with evidence for any prosecutions. Sir Martin’s criticism of the London fire brigade commissioner, Dany Cotton, was rightly followed by her resignation. It is too soon to say what phase two will lead to but, especially in these fraught first days, the inquiry should do all it can to rebuild trust in a necessary process.
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