The company that made the insulation for use on Grenfell Tower encouraged its product manager to lie to customers about “deliberately misleading” testing that purported to make it suitable for use on tall buildings, the inquiry heard today.
It has been known since 2018 that Celotex used additional fire-resisting boards in its official large-scale test in May 2014, which were not declared in the report or subsequent marketing of the RS5000 product that was advertised as “suitable for use” on high-rise buildings.
But today Jonathan Roper, former product manager, alleged that this was done with the full knowledge and approval of Celotex’s senior management.
He repeatedly agreed that the company’s actions were “deliberately misleading and dishonest” and said he had been made to “lie for commercial gain”.
Aged 22 and in his first job out of university, Mr Roper was tasked with developing an insulation product that could be used on high-rise buildings when he joined Celotex in 2013.
Celotex was keen to catch up with its major rival, Kingspan, which had been marketing its K15 insulation as suitable for use on high rises since 2006 and had therefore cornered a market worth an estimated £10m a year.
He discovered that the firm had passed a fire safety test using what he described as an “unrealistic” cladding system made up of cement particle cladding boards, but then marketed it for general use on high rises.
At the time, combustible insulation was permissible on high rise buildings only in the precise system it was tested in.
In an email in November 2013, Mr Roper said that “trying to do the right thing” by following this rule “would require a huge [publicity] campaign and probably a lawsuit [from Kingspan]”.
He added that the company could back out of attempting to sell its insulation on high rises “because in the event of a fire it will burn”.
But he said today it “quickly became apparent to him” after sending this email that this was not the route Celotex was going to take, with the commercial team keen to replicate Kingspan’s approach in order to avoid “limiting sales”.
In February 2014, the company tested the RS5000 insulation – which was a simple rebranding of one of its existing products – at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) testing facility. The test failed when flames reached the top of the nine-metre mock wall in 26 minutes.
Mr Roper said that Phil Clarke, who worked for the BRE, suggested that it had failed due to cracking of the 8mm non-combustible cladding panels, which had been installed in front of it, and suggested using a thicker panel of 12mm to achieve a pass.
The team at Celotex then decided to also add in fire-resisting magnesium oxide boards within the wall to increase its chances of passing a retest. Mr Roper said this was done with the express knowledge of senior managers.
“Did that not strike you at the time as dishonest?” asked Richard Millett, counsel to the inquiry.
“I went along with a lot of actions at Celotex that looking back on reflection were completely unethical,” Mr Roper replied. “I was 22/23, first job. I thought this was standard practice albeit this did sit very uncomfortably with me.”
He said that he was “fully aware” that the test was being “overengineered to achieve a pass” and that he was “not in any doubt” that Mr Clarke of the BRE was aware of the plan to include the fire-resisting board.
With the thicker cladding panel and the addition of the boards, the test passed its second attempt in May 2014. Mr Roper then drafted a slide presentation for Celotex’s senior management to explain this testing process.
But after the presentation was made, he was instructed to cut it to remove all reference to the failed test in February and the use of the additional fire-resisting boards.
“You knew at the time that this was downright misleading and intended to be misleading, and if marketed in this way it would be a fraud on the market,” said Mr Millett.
Mr Roper agreed. He added: “I still lived with my parents and I recall going home that evening and mentioning it to them and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I was being asked to do.”
When the test report from the BRE was published, it contained no reference to the additional magnesium oxide boards. Mr Roper said this was because the BRE’s Mr Clarke decided they did not have a major impact on the test result and therefore omitted them.
Nonetheless, Mr Roper asked them to remove the only image from the report that showed the boards – a request that was not granted.
He then copied and pasted Kingspan’s description of its product – which stated that it was suitable for use on buildings above 18m – into a brief for Celotex’s marketing team to include it in the literature for RS5000. No reference was made to the additional fire-resisting board.
“These omissions and misdescriptions were not accidental, were they?” Mr Millett asked.
“No, they were deliberate,” Mr Roper replied.
“Do you accept that in approving these documents you were dishonest?” Mr Millett asked.
“Yes, I do,” Mr Roper replied. “I felt entirely uncomfortable but also useless… It was one of the contributory factors to me leaving my role because I felt so uncomfortable and I knew that there would be a level of questioning with the launch [of RS5000] that would essentially mean I would be required to lie for commercial gain again.”
Asked why he did not raise these issues with someone more senior at the company, he said: “This was a common practice. All of the management action board were present when… the decision was made.
“I have subsequently heard and seen that this isn’t the only manipulation of the test data this business has had: there are issues around the Class 0 fire performance, around the thermal performance of its entire range. It was within the culture of that business at that time. It’s something I maybe should have, or definitely should have, expressed more of a concern about.”
When Mr Roper presented the product to his own marketing team, he continued to remove the key details around testing.
“Was your idea that they would practice this deceit on Celotex’s customers, the better to sell this product?” asked Mr Millett.
Mr Roper accepted that this was the aim, but said it was not his idea.
In its opening statement last week, Celotex emphasised that the product was retested after the Grenfell Tower fire without the fire-resisting boards and passed. It said that all the staff involved in its testing and marketing have left the firm.
Mr Roper will continue giving evidence tomorrow.
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