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Grenfell refurbishment firms criticised at inquiry

Firms involved in refurbishing Grenfell Tower faced a barrage of criticism at the public inquiry as it was claimed “corporate silence” could endanger lives in future.

Several sub-contractors who worked on parts of the refit refused to comment on their work until they had full disclosure of documents, the inquiry was told today.

Stephanie Barwise QC, representing survivors and the bereaved of the fire at the tower, said the move was “inhumane”, a view echoed by another advocate, Pete Weatherby QC, who warned them not to play “cat-and-mouse”.

The work carried out on Grenfell Tower was criticised in withering terms by lawyers speaking on behalf of those affected.

Seventy-one people were killed during the tragedy in Kensington, west London, on 14 June last year.

Danny Friedman QC said Kensington and Chelsea council “oversaw a refurbishment of a social housing high rise tower block in such a way as to render it a death trap”.

He added: “Those who escaped owe their lives primarily to chance rather than risk assessment and contingency planning by either the council or the fire brigade.”

Polyethylene cladding was wrapped around the west London block during the work, a material “now openly described by some in the industry as petrol”, his colleague Ms Barwise said.

She told the hearing at Holborn Bars that CEP, the sub-contractor which purchased and fabricated the panels, Harley Facades, which installed it, and architects Studio E had all said they cannot yet participate.

“These parties make no comment on the detailed criticism of their work, nor do they even comment on drawings that they themselves drafted,” she told the hearing.

“Significantly, they do not indicate how they proposed to achieve compliance (to building regulations), assuming, that is, that they ever applied their minds to that question.”

Expert reports released yesterday identified the cladding system installed on the building as the main reason the flames shot up the side of the tower block with such speed.

Ms Barwise hit out at the corporate bodies over their alleged behaviour.

She said: “These contractors should not be allowed, by their deliberate refusal to participate, to derail determination of the compliance issue even though we are concerned with blatant non-compliance.

“Despite their words of condolence to the victims, these corporates have no desire to assist this inquiry, even though their participation could save lives in the immediate future.

“The corporate silence deprives the families of the degree of resolution and understanding to which they are entitled and has only served to increase their pain and uncertainty.

“It is inhumane to remain silent when so many seek understanding and answers – answers which are within the corporates’ gift.”

Mr Weatherby later agreed: “This is a public search for the truth. It is not a game of cat-and-mouse, nor is it a matter of smoke and mirrors.”

A statement provided by the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) was also scrutinised during today’s hearing.

The TMO ran the building and oversaw the doomed refurbishment that finished a year before the fire.

Sam Stein QC, representing several bereaved and survivors, said: “The TMO say this: ‘Why combustible cladding was used on Grenfell Tower is something this inquiry will have to consider.’

“As the commercial client, it is, we suggest, extraordinary that their opening statement suggests that the TMO is waiting for the inquiry to tell it why it wrapped Grenfell Tower in combustible material.

“The TMO was not a small management organisation – they managed 10,000 homes.”

At the end of the day, it was suggested by one advocate that the council, TMO and firefighters could be guilty of “institutional racism”.

Imran Khan, who once represented the parents of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, said the current terms of reference should be broadened to see if race, religion or social class played any part in the disaster.

Descriptions of Grenfell Tower residents in the firefighters’ witness statements from the night suggests “unconscious or some conscious racism”, Mr Khan said.

He said those in the block from black or minority backgrounds were not described by their clothes or features, but ethnic origin.

He went on: “If that is the case we simply ask the question – did it have any impact on the way individuals were treated on that night?”

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