A senior executive at the firm that made the combustible cladding used on Grenfell Tower has agreed to give evidence to the public inquiry after refusing to do so for the last seven months.
Claude Schmidt, the president of Arconic Architectural Products, the French company that supplied the plastic-filled panels that were the main cause of fire spread, was one of several witnesses wanted for questioning by the inquiry into the disaster who had refused, citing an arcane French law.
A deputy solicitor for the inquiry, Cathy Kennedy, told survivors and the bereaved on Wednesday that Schmidt had finally agreed to give evidence when the inquiry restarts next month after it was closed down before Christmas following a Covid-19 outbreak.
Two other witnesses who used to work for the firm, Claude Wehrle and Peter Froehlich, are still holding out, as is Gwenaëlle Derrendinger. They have all cited the rarely used French blocking statute that is intended to prevent the transmission of French commercial secrets in foreign legal and administrative proceedings.
The counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC, had urged the witnesses to “do the right thing”, and the minister for building safety, Stephen Greenhalgh, said they should “step up to the plate”. The French government made a public statement saying it did not believe the law was applicable.
Grenfell United, the families group, mounted a campaign to demand that all Arconic witness attend, including placing a poster truck outside the French embassy in London displaying an image of the burned-out tower as the central white band on the French tricolour flag.
The inquiry has already seen internal Arconic emails that show how in 2009, Wehrle shared with colleagues images of a burning tower fitted with similar panels to those it sold to Grenfell “to show you how dangerous PE [polyethylene] can be when it comes to architecture”. In 2015, he emailed colleagues: “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to fire-resistant as a matter of urgency.”
A spokesperson for the French embassy in London, speaking when their refusals became public last autumn, said: “We have asked Arconic to shoulder its responsibility in this matter.
“We have informed the inquiry and the UK Foreign Office of our position. [The purpose of the blocking statute] isn’t to obstruct the emergence of the truth or to guarantee immunity for French nationals. This is not a way to evade responsibility.”
The inquiry is due to restart on 11 February in remote form with witnesses being cross-examined online. The first two weeks will be dominated by witnesses from Arconic, including Schmidt and the UK sales manager, Deborah French. In March it will hear for a second time from an executive from Kingspan, the Irish construction materials company that made some of the combustible insulation. Adrian Pargeter, its head of technical and marketing, is being recalled after he admitted giving “erroneous” evidence last year. This related to how in 2018, after the 14 June 2017 fire, the company presented evidence to a parliamentary select committee about the fire performance of a rival non-combustible mineral wool insulation.
Kingspan has told the inquiry Pargeter “gave certain erroneous answers” and “wished to correct his evidence”. Kingspan has said the error emerged from a misunderstanding by the inquiry about which fire test data it had sent the MPs.
It said it carried out two tests, one of which contained deliberate imperfections weakening its fire performance. Counsel to the inquiry assumed this was the test sent to MPs and in questioning Pargeter, accused Kingspan of thereby deliberately misleading MPs.
Kingspan has denied this and said the test results sent were of a “very robust” structure that still failed, but Pargeter did not correct the inquiry’s misunderstanding.