New Grenfell inquiry expert ‘has links to cladding firm’
BENITA MEHRA, who was recently appointed to the inquiry’s second phase, has links to Arconic, the US company that made the aluminium composite material (ACM) panels that were on Grenfell.
The Guardian reported that Ms Mehra ‘has links to the company which made the cladding blamed for accelerating’ the fire, yet was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Earlier this month, it was revealed that the chartered engineer would replace Professor Nabeel Hamdi on the inquiry panel, with campaign group for the bereaved and survivors Grenfell United believing that this move was ‘snuck out just before Christmas’.
Mr Johnson had stated: ‘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.’
Grenfell United were ‘angered’ and disappointed that Professor Hamdi, an academic ‘with expertise in housing, design and planning’, was replaced by an engineer, and claimed it had not been ‘given an explanation for the change’. The group undertook research of Ms Mehra and revealed she had run the Women’s Engineering Society, which received a £71,000 grant from the charitable arm of Arconic – the Arconic Foundation – three months post Grenfell.
Arconic’s polyethylene filled panels have already been found by the inquiry to be ‘the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up the building’, and the grant was the ‘largest’ received in 2017 by the society. Grenfell United said this was a ‘clear conflict of interest’, with Ms Mehra’s appointment a ‘slap in the face’ for hopes of justice. It called for her to stand down before the second phase begins on 27 January, as this will examine ‘how the Arconic cladding panels were chosen, their safety testing, marketing and promotion’.
Karim Mussilhy, vice chair of Grenfell United, stated: ‘How can she sit next to Sir Martin Moore-Bick when Arconic will be on the stand and is one of the organisations we need answers from in terms of what caused the deaths of our loved ones? Her society has been supported by Arconic. She will look at it from the perspective of Arconic doing good things for the industry, that they are a great organisation. Her perspective will be affected.
‘We will be absolutely furious if she is on the platform and it would be morally wrong to keep this person there. The report from the first phase of the inquiry restored a little bit of confidence. This has taken us ten steps backwards.’
The Guardian pointed out this was ‘particularly sensitive’ as ‘anger is running high’ at the cladding and insulation material manufacturers, with families of 69 victims and 177 survivors suing Arconic and other manufacturers in US courts for wrongful death. An inquiry spokesperson said it was ‘confident that Benita Mehra’s former presidency’ of the society ‘does not affect her impartiality as a panel member’.
In turn, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said there were ‘robust processes’ to ensure that ‘any potential conflicts of interest are properly considered and managed’, adding that ‘the Arconic Foundation donated to a specific scheme which provides mentoring for women in engineering and is unrelated to the issues being considered by the inquiry’.
Mr Johnson had said that officials had ‘not identified any concerns’ with Ms Mehra’s appointment, and she had ‘confirmed that she is not aware of any conflict of interest’, while the Cabinet Office said Professor Hamdi had left the panel after having ‘reflected on the commitment required’. An Arconic spokesperson said the foundation was ‘independently endowed and managed’ to ‘advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and training worldwide’, and create access to those fields for women internationally, with the 2017 grant ‘purely on this basis’.
Mr Johnson has since told survivors he would investigate Ms Mehra’s role, at a pre arranged meeting with community representatives at Downing Street. Mohamed Ragab, whose nephew Hesham Rahman died in the fire, noted Mr Johnson ‘said he had no idea about this woman dealing with this company’, and ‘would have to investigate and find out what is going on’.
An anonymous attendee commented that Mr Johnson ‘didn’t seem to know who she is’, and promised that ‘this would be definitely be investigated’, as well as that ‘anything that causes us discomfort should not be allowed to happen’. Mr Johnson was urged by Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey to cancel Ms Mehra’s appointment as it ‘undermines public confidence’ in the inquiry, Mr Healey adding that the ‘thoughtless decision’ should be reversed.
Downing Street declined to directly comment on what was said, but released a statement: ‘The prime minister reaffirmed his commitment to getting to the truth of what happened, learn lessons and deliver justice for victims. During the meeting, they reflected on the Phase 1 report of the Grenfell Inquiry, and looked ahead to the next stage.’