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Tory donor was key shareholder in Grenfell cladding firm Arconic

A major shareholder in Arconic, the company that made Grenfell Tower’s combustible cladding, donated nearly £25,000 to Boris Johnson and the Conservative…

By admin , in latest news , at December 23, 2020 Tags:

A major shareholder in Arconic, the company that made Grenfell Tower’s combustible cladding, donated nearly £25,000 to Boris Johnson and the Conservative party, it has emerged. The most recent donation was recorded in 2017, the year in which Arconic’s plastic-filled panels were the main cause of the rapid spread of fire that killed 72 people.

The bereaved and survivors on Tuesday night called on the prime minister to return the money to Elliott Advisors UK, the British arm of a US private equity company that has a 10% holding in the $14bn (£10.4bn) annual turnover business.

They said the “cosy relationship” undermined trust in the government’s efforts to get to the truth about the disaster.

Witnesses from Arconic, based in France, are refusing to give evidence to the inquiry despite having been called to do so next month. They have cited an obscure French law that even the French government says does not apply.

The bereaved and survivors have been lobbying the UK government to put pressure on the French authorities to ensure the Arconic witnesses testify. On 15 December, the inquiry said Claude Wehrle, who used to work for Arconic, and Gwenaëlle Derrendinger, who still does, were still refusing to attend. The inquiry is in discussions with Peter Froehlich, another former employee in Germany, about whether he will appear.

“The Conservatives and the prime minister should return this money,” said Karim Mussilhy, the vice-chairman of the survivors’ group Grenfell United, who lost his uncle, Hesham Rahman, in the fire.

“How can we trust this government to deliver truth, justice and change when they themselves, including the prime minister, take donations from one of Arconic’s major shareholders. Right now Arconic is getting away with not cooperating fully with the inquiry and the government appears not to be doing enough. Is this cosy relationship one of the reasons?”

In 2009, Wehrle, a former technical manager and a volunteer firefighter, shared with Arconic colleagues images of a burning tower fitted with similar panels to those it sold to Grenfell “to show you how dangerous PE [polyethylene] can be when it comes to architecture”.

Some of the internal emails showing Arconic’s conduct before the fire were first obtained by Metropolitan police detectives undertaking a criminal investigation with mutual assistance from the French police.

Elliott Advisors UK is run by Gordon Singer and is the London arm of Elliot Management Corporation, headed by his father, Paul Singer. It has about $40bn of assets under management. Research by Grenfell United revealed the British arm made donations to the Conservatives in 2008, 2016 and 2017. The 2008 donation was made directly to Johnson when he was the MP for Henley-on-Thames and before Elliott invested in 2015, at which point Arconic was part of Alcoa. The 2016 and 2017 donations are believed to relate to party fundraising events.

Elliott’s position is understood to be that its political donations are entirely unrelated to its investment in Arconic and have no bearing on how the government conducts its investigations into the Grenfell disaster. The company declined to comment on the record.

A spokesperson for the Conservatives said: “Donations to the Conservative party are received in good faith and are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

The public inquiry into the disaster has heard that Arconic’s panels were “the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up the building” and that Arconic executives knew how combustible their product was years before the fire. They discussed internally how its aluminium panels filled with polyethylene [PE] should not be sold for use on high-rise buildings.

In 2015, Wehrle emailed colleagues with what he admitted was an “anti-commercial” opinion: “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to fire-resistant as a matter of urgency.”

Arconic gave the instruction to no longer use PE on projects in France in May 2016, but no warning had been given to Grenfell, the inquiry heard. Arconic has told the inquiry it was entitled to expect the UK regulatory regime to maintain safety, that its product had been “misused” and “the principal cause of the Grenfell tragedy was the failure by those responsible for the refurbishment of the tower”.

It declined to comment on the political donation by its shareholder, but said: “Arconic Architectural Products has fully cooperated with the authorities and the inquiry at all times. The individuals who have declined to participate in the inquiry have taken the advice of separate counsel and Arconic Architectural Products does not have any influence on those decisions. The three witnesses who are represented by the company’s counsel are prepared to provide evidence, including Claude Schmidt, Arconic Architectural Products’ corporate representative.”

The inquiry has said it is unlikely to accept the conditions under which Schmidt has said he is prepared to give oral evidence. Discussions are said to be ongoing.

In December 2019, Boris Johnson picked Benita Mehra, an engineer, to sit on the Grenfell Tower inquiry panel, but she was forced to stand down within weeks after some of the bereaved established she previously ran an organisation that received a £71,000 grant from the charitable arm of Arconic. Survivors said the grant created a clear conflict of interest and described Mehra’s appointment as “a slap in the face” for their hopes of justice. Lawyers for dozens of the Grenfell community complained her selection created “a clear appearance of bias”.