The Grenfell Tower cladding manufacturer Arconic considered withdrawing its combustible panels from sale before the disaster after a spate of high-rise cladding fires in the Middle East but decided against it for “commercial reasons”, the public inquiry was told this week.
Deborah French, a former UK sales manager for Arconic, said that around May 2013 there had been discussion in the company about withdrawing the polyethylene core material. There had been several high-rise cladding fires in the United Arab Emirates, where “they used to sell tens and tens and tens of thousands of sq metres of that stuff every month”.
She said a rival, Alucobond, had been considering withdrawing its version, but Arconic decided not to, in part, French agreed under questioning by Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, because it would have made less money selling the fire retardant version.
Asked if safety was a consideration, French replied: “I don’t recall any conversations of that nature.”
The decision to keep selling the combustible panels emerged in the first evidence from witnesses for Arconic, which made the plastic-filled rain-screen cladding that spread the fire that killed 72 people. The inquiry heard that the company was “very secret” about its products and French, who sold the material, knew in 2015 that the panels were combustible but did not tell anyone on the Grenfell project.
The inquiry saw a transcript of a phone call a week after the disaster between French and a cladding system designer, who was furious that Arconic appeared to have sold the panels using a UK certificate about its fire safety that did not show, as European certificates did, that it was highly flammable. The phone call was taped without French’s knowledge and obtained by Scotland Yard detectives investigating possible manslaughter and health and safety crimes.
According to the transcript, John Simmons of Simco put it to French that Arconic may be “guilty of corporate manslaughter” because it had not revealed the true performance of its panels and that tests on the materials found it “goes up like a fucking bonfire”.
They discussed the validity of the UK safety certificate Arconic provided to customers, and which came from the British Board of Agrément (BBA). The BBA had said the panels achieved a class 0 rating for fire spread, the safest rating. But French knew Arconic’s Reynobond 55 PE in cassette form, as used at Grenfell, performed worse. European fire classification reports using an alphabetic scale gave it an E rating.
French told Simmons “they made a decision not to put it in the public domain”.
In the phone call, Simmons asked: “Would they put it to the public domain that their PE core was highly flammable, knowing very well that everybody they’d supplied it to was gonna sue ’ em?”
“No they probably wouldn’t no,” French replied.
“This has happened that we’re in – fucking we’re right in the middle of it,” said Simmons. “We’re gonna be dragged … right into the middle of it and we can’t get no answers out of Reynobond and now our customers want fucking answers.”
Simmons, who was worried about being held liable, asked French to search for paperwork that would show what claims had been made about fire performance. But French had left Arconic at the end of 2014 and had since moved house. She told Simmons: “I shredded loads of it.”
The inquiry has previously heard that Arconic executives in France knew the panels showed “bad behaviour exposed to fire”. Claude Wehrle, a technical manager at the company who is one of three current and former Arconic staff refusing to give evidence, knew in the years before Arconic’s panels were sold for Grenfell that they were dangerous.
Lawyers for Arconic have said that “a responsible specifier would have taken into account the combustible nature of ACM PE Arconic”, that the designers and builders failed to account for fire regulations, and when the panels were sold for use at Grenfell, no one in Arconic knew of any fires that had resulted in loss of life or serious injury.
The inquiry continues on Monday, with Claude Schmidt, the managing director of Arconic’s French subsidiary, which sold the panels, giving evidence.