A manager at insulation manufacturer Kingspan has denied being used as a “useful idiot” during the firm’s push against plans to ban combustible materials in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Richard Burnley appeared before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry this morning to answer questions about his role in a lobbying effort the firm undertook to push for the continued use of large-scale testing to justify cladding systems, as opposed to an outright ban on combustible materials.
The inquiry was shown an email from September 2017, just three months after the fire, which showed senior figures at the firm considering “a friendly tap on the shoulder” to then Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) regarding their concerns.
“We want to remain ‘friends’ with DCLG,” the email said.
Asked about this wording today, Mr Burnley denied the firm had a close relationship with the department and said the email simply meant they did not want to take steps which would be seen as obstructive.
A further email from May 2018 showed Gilbert McCarthy, a senior director at Kingspan, emailing to say chief executive Gene Murtagh “was very clear we need to pull out all the stops to convince the [government]… that large-scale testing is the ‘right and only’ solution”.
The firm was seeking to do this by showing that systems comprised of limited combustibility insulation – which would be permitted under a ban – could still fail tests.
It originally set up a test in May 2018 which had deliberately designed weaknesses in order to induce a failure, but despite these efforts the test passed.
It then obtained a material – Vitracore G2 – which, despite a fire rating of ‘limited combustibility’, was suspected to perform badly in a real-world fire. A test involving this panel failed in July 2018.
Mr Burnley then presented the results of this testing to a parliamentary select committee investigating plans to ban combustible materials in a letter and by giving oral evidence.
But he did not mention the test that had passed in May or the deliberate selection of a panel that was known to perform badly in the July test.
Asked why not, he explained the cladding panel was on the market with this rating and that Kingspan was simply seeking to replicate a potential system designers could use in its testing. He said he did not know of the May test.
He insisted that Kingspan’s evidence to the select committee was motivated by public benefit rather than any element of financial gain.
“Your case is that there was no self-interest at all,” said Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry. “Are you really going to sit here and say that?”
“That’s my belief,” replied Mr Burnley.
“I have to suggest to you that’s quite an incredible answer to give,” Mr Millett added.
“It’s a truthful one,” replied Mr Burnley.
He then showed Mr Burnley an email in which other Kingspan colleagues said he had been chosen to give evidence because “he knows enough but not too much, which is helpful”.
“Would it be fair, and I’m sorry to be blunt about this but let’s look at it fairly and squarely, that you were set up by others at Kingspan as Kingspan’s useful idiot, who knew the case message and could speak very articulately to it, but not the fact that it rested on flimsy evidence?” asked Mr Millett.
“I don’t believe that’s the case, no,” said Mr Burnley. “If that had been the case then I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to go.”
Following the test, investigations by the government revealed that Vitracore should not have been given its rating of limited combustibility – something the manufacturer of the product challenged.
Internal Kingspan emails then showed staff saying that this development “killed our failed [test]”, meaning it was no longer useful as a lobbying tool against non-combustible systems.
Mr Millett asked Mr Burnley if it was true that Kingspan was “doing its best to ensure science was secretly perverted for financial gain” and if this “had been its approach for many years”. Mr Burnley said he did not believe this to be the case.
The inquiry has now concluded its second module, which began in November, looking into the way the products used in Grenfell Tower’s cladding system were tested, marketed and sold.
Evidence resumes on Monday, when the focus will move to the social housing management of the tower.
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