Grenfell: panel manufacturer defends conduct

The company that manufactured the panels used on Grenfell Tower has told a public inquiry that it has been unfairly scapegoated for the tragedy.

Yesterday, the inquiry heard from lawyers representing the bereaved that manufacturers had tried to “game the system” by placing unsafe products on the market.

Stephen Hockman KC (pictured), speaking on behalf of Arconic, the US-owned firm that made the panels used on the 24-storey building, claimed that the company had been unfairly blamed by others that were seeking to avoid responsibility.

“So great is the weight of criticism which has been directed against us that it sometimes seemed to our clients that there has been an agenda throughout to subject them to condemnation even before the case has been fully heard,” he said, in a closing statement to the inquiry.

Hockman argued that primary responsibility for any misuse of the product lay with those in charge of the design and construction of the architectural project.

Arconic’s defence against allegations that it had failed to issue appropriate warnings about its product, or had made misleading statements about it, lay in the British Board of Agrément certificate covering the materials, Hockman said.

“The certificate […] not only makes it crystal clear the product was combustible, but also contains explicit limitations or disclaimers as to the extent to which a purchaser can use the product in a particular architectural context without himself taking responsibility for testing and checking that it is suitable,” he said.

Hockman added that the company had “persuasively answered” the numerous criticisms launched in its direction.

“We invite you to judge the conduct of AAP [the French arm of Arconic] personnel by reference to what was known or understood at the time and to discount the wisdom of hindsight,” he said.

Elsewhere, speaking on behalf of Harley Facades, which oversaw the recladding of the tower, Jonathan Laidlaw KC said the focus had to be on the failures that had materially contributed to the catastrophic fire on 14 June 2017.

Harley was not primarily responsible for the selection of materials and had been misled about their fire-safety properties, he said, arguing that there was no way that the company could have known about the dangers of the product.

“If the truth had been known, then of course […] it is extremely unlikely that ACM PE [aluminium composite material with a polyethylene core] would have been used,” he said.

The recommendations of the inquiry would lead to great change, and the way Harley worked would have to change if lessons were to be learned, he said. “Harley cannot and does not expect to be airbrushed out of the narrative of this disaster,” he said.

There had been “shortcomings, failings and omissions” in its work that had been acknowledged. “But Harley are also entitled […] to fairness; to have their part judged both by reference to the company as it was 10 years ago, its size, and what it did and did not hold itself out to offer in terms of expertise or otherwise.”

Ultimately, fire safety was not Harley’s area of responsibility, Laidlaw said: “It was not Harley who were the architects charged with producing a compliant design, including the selection of safe products.

“Neither were they the fire engineers. Harley was entitled […] to rely on [architects] Studio E and [fire engineer] Exova to discharge this pivotal role.

“This is not an exercise in buck-passing, because how on earth could a cladding contractor reasonably be expected or able to discharge these functions?”

The inquiry continues.

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