Kingspan, Celotex, Arconic … The Arconic employees the inquiry most wants to question are based in France: Claude Wehrle, Claude Schmidt and Gwenaëlle Derrendinger
A damning and influential article by Dominic Lawson about the build safety regime – and the wider UK housebuilding sector – was published in The Sunday Times yesterday.
It was sub-titled “We now know the Kingspan cladding firm rigged tests — even after the fire”.
The Grenfell inquiry has exposed that months after the fire Kingspan — whose combustible foam insulation was inside the cladding — engaged in a campaign to persuade MPs and government ministers that its own product was no more dangerous than a non-combustible one.
How fortunate for the executives of Kingspan that their interrogation at the Grenfell Tower inquiry last week coincided with the arrival in the UK of the Covid-19 vaccine and a possibly terminal crisis in our trade negotiations with the EU.
It did not just hire the lobbying firm Portland to fix meetings with MPs and ministers in which, to quote the PR outfit itself, “there is immeasurable value in getting Kingspan’s manifesto in front of these decision-makers”.
In July 2018, Kingspan presented to MHCLG and to the relevant parliamentary select committee the results of tests it had conducted on insulation made by the rival firm Rockwool, whose product is not combustible but is less thermally efficient.
The construction giant Kingspan manipulated fire tests after the Grenfell Tower disaster to undermine a competitor and gain commercial advantage, a public inquiry was told today. The insulation firm, owned by the Irish billionaire Murtagh family, was accused of perverting science by setting up fire tests for rival products that were “designed to fail”.
These tests were deliberately rigged.
Or, to quote an internal email from a Kingspan technician revealed at the inquiry: “I have introduced as many weak features/details as possible to ensure it has the best chance of performing poorly.”T
The Grenfell Inquiry counsel Richard Millett QC put it to Adrian Pargeter, the director of technical, marketing and regulatory affairs at Kingspan, an Irish company:
“Kingspan, even in … the face of an investigation into fire safety after Grenfell, was doing its best to ensure that the science was secretly perverted for financial gain. That has been your own approach and Kingspan’s general approach for years. It’s still going on … Did you see the aftermath of the Grenfell fire as something of a commercial opportunity?”
Mr Pargeter denied this.
Earlier text messages between members of Kingspan’s technical team, Peter Moss and Arron Chalmers, were read to the inquiry.
They joked about the way the firm had managed to get its Kooltherm K15 insulation categorised as “class 0” — that is, appropriate for use in buildings higher than 18 metres — in part by using a different material in the official tests from what was actually being sold.
Chalmers: “Doesn’t actually get class 0 when we test the whole product tho. LOL.”
Moss: “WHAT. We lied? Honest opinion now.”
Chalmers: “Yeahhhh …”
And later in the conversation: “All lies, mate … Alls we do is lie here.”
A week earlier the inquiry heard that when a constructor questioned whether Kooltherm K15 was suitable for a high-rise, the Kingspan executive Philip Heath emailed a friend:
“I think [they] are getting me confused with someone who gives a dam [sic].”
Dominic Lawson writes: “It was astute of Kingspan’s founder, Eugene Murtagh, and his son Gene (now in charge of the business) to have cashed in shares worth £98m in the weeks before the inquiry got its teeth into this matter.”
RANK: 5Building supplies€2.219bn (£1.953bn) ▲€777m Murtagh, 78, chairman of Kingspan, the global maker of insulation and other building products, made €44m in share sales last year as the value of his 14.9% stake in the rapidly growing €10.2bn London-quoted company rose to more than €1.5bn.
Eugene Murtagh is a billionaire, having built up his company from a one-man operation in County Cavan in the 1970s, into a multinational business. In October, the Irish Times pronounced Gene Murtagh its “business person of the month”, noting that “sales have jumped more than 300% to €1.65 billion since [he] took charge in 2005”. Not a mention of Grenfell.
The denies any culpability for the deaths of the 72 men, women and children who died at Grenfell.
Only 5% of the insulation on the tower contained Kooltherm K15.
The rest was provided by Celotex, a French company, and the cladding panels as a whole by the US firm Arconic.
Lawson writes: “The Arconic employees the inquiry most wants to question are based in France (Claude Wehrle, Claude Schmidt and Gwenaëlle Derrendinger).
“They have refused to give oral evidence on the grounds that something called the French Blocking Statute prevents them from “sharing commercial or technical information to establish evidence in foreign courts”. But as the inquiry’s counsel observed, there has been “only one successful prosecution under the French Blocking Statute in the 51 years since that statute was enacted”.
“It does not take a cynic to surmise that the reason for their refusal to be questioned may lie elsewhere.”
With the evidence emerging from the Grenfell inquiry, it will be up to the Metropolitan police to initiate any manslaughter charges.
“Even this uninvolved observer was reduced to shuddering fury when seeing what emerged last week at the inquiry. So it is hard to imagine the feelings of families now trapped in unsellable properties, let alone those of the relatives of the Grenfell residents for whom this was a death trap.
“It turns out that the depravity, at a corporate level, was worse even than we could have imagined.”