Second phase of Grenfell inquiry begins
THE INQUIRY’S second phase will focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, as well as its immediate aftermath and the UK government’s role.
The Guardian and BBC News reported on the beginning of the inquiry’s second phase, which is set to take 18 months and which will examine ‘decisions taken in the months and years before the fire, its immediate aftermath and the role of the UK government’. The news outlets noted that some of the evidence is ‘expected to contain explosive revelations’, with around 200,000 documents – including private emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released during the hearings.
Ahead of its start, there were concerns it might become a ‘blame game’ between companies involved in construction, design and cladding, with The Guardian believing inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick ‘faces a difficult challenge to keep the process on track, especially after the recent row over and resignation of inquiry panellist Benita Mehra.
Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and cladding manufacturer Arconic were set to open the proceedings, followed by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) as it was owner and manager of Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire via the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.
Sir Martin said that the second phase would examine ‘the decisions which led to the installation of a highly combustible cladding system on a highrise residential building and the wider background against which they were taken’, with witnesses said to be ranging from builders who worked on site ‘potentially all the way up [to] the former prime minister Theresa May’.
Its opening week was set to contain opening submissions for the first three parts: an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. The opening day saw ‘key revelations’ including that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment ‘are accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’, according to inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett.
Mr Millett said each claimed what happened was ‘someone else’s fault’, with the ‘sole exception’ being RKBC as it accepted refurbishment work should not have been signed off. The others denied responsibility in ‘carefully crafted statements […] any member of the public reading those statements and taking them all at face value would be forced to conclude that... nobody made any serious or causative mistakes. In every case, what happened was, as each of them would have it, someone else’s fault’.
Arconic was shown to have known in 2011 that the cladding panels used ‘were too flammable for use across Europe’, but believed it could still ‘work with regulators who are not as restrictive’, with an internal email from 2015 showing it knew the material was ‘dangerous on facades’, and that ‘everything should be transferred to fire retardant as a matter of urgency’. An official also wrote that a standard interpreted as allowing for its use ‘should have been discontinued over 10 years ago’.
Celotex was ‘worried’ in 2013 that the insulation material ‘should not be used’ with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, with an email reading ‘do we take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because in the event of a fire it would burn?’.
RKBC officers had also inspected Grenfell seven times to examine the cladding, ‘but found nothing wrong’, with the inquiry told that the ‘view expressed by building control was that the work was completed to a high standard’, with RKBC having ‘accepted that it failed in its duty on building safety’.
Finally, Harley Facades staff were interviewed by Scotland Yard detectives ‘investigating possible manslaughter and corporate manslaughter charges’, with the firm’s counsel Jonathan Laidlaw stating it was ‘deeply unfair’ to suggest the company ‘knew how unsafe the materials they were using were’. He added that staff have ‘also suffered and they are also now confronted with having to give evidence in the glare of a level of publicity they can have had no previous experience [of]’.
The company added that it ‘did not choose the materials but had confidence in them’, as the cladding ‘had not ignited during a fire in 2012 in Camden, at a building it had refurbished five years before’.