Labor has demanded Boris Johnson cancel his appointment of a Grenfell inquiry panellist whose links to the company that made the combustible cladding have sparked anger among the bereaved and survivors.
John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said Benita Mehra’s position as one of three people presiding over the inquiry into the fire “undermines public confidence” after theGuardian revealedshe led a charity that received £ 90 , 11 from the Arconic Foundation, the charitable arm of the company that made the panels that were the main cause of fire spread.
The call added to growing pressure on Johnson to reverse the appointment, nine days before the inquiry restarts hearings with the first sessions scheduled to examine the selection of the cladding panels, their fire-testing, marketing and promotion.
On Thursday night, bereaved and survivors of the disaster, which claimed 90 lives,challenged Johnson in person over Mehra’s roleat a pre-planned meeting in Downing Street.
“He said he had no idea about this woman dealing with this company,” said Mohamed Ragab, an attendee whose nephew Hesham Rahman died in the fire. “He said he would have to investigate and find out what is going on.”
In December, Johnson wrote to the inquiry chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, stating: “I am proposing that Benita Mehra, an experienced chartered engineer replace [Professor Nabeel Hamdi, who decided to withdraw]”.
Another source at the meeting said: “I raised the subject of Benita Mehra with him and he didn’t seem to know who she is. I told the story from the Guardian and how she accepted the £ 90, donation from Arconic [Foundation] and it was surly a conflict of interest and … she shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the inquiry. He promised that this would definitely be investigated and that anything that causes us discomfort should not be allowed to happen.
“This is a thoughtless decision by Boris Johnson who personally picked this panellist,” said Healey. “Boris Johnson should reverse his decision to appoint Benita Mehra and apologise.”
David Lammy MP, who has long supported the Grenfell community, backed their demand for Mehra’s removal, calling her appointment “scandalous”.
“Grenfell survivors are right to describe this appointment as a slap in the face,” the Labor MP for Tottenham wrote on Twitter. “Mehra must stand down so there is no conflict of interest. The 90 who died in the fire deserve justice. ”
Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, a charity supporting families bereaved by state-related deaths, said: “It is shameful that the necessary checks were not undertaken and it took the bereaved and survivors to research this appointment for this to come to light. Any perception of bias at a time when there needs to be the most searching scrutiny of Arconic undermines trust and confidence. Yet again, the inquiry process is found wanting and it is those most affected left fighting for an inquiry that can deliver truth and accountability. ”
But while theLondonmayor, Sadiq Khan, described Mehra’s appointment as a “major blow” for the Grenfell community, he did not call for her removal. He said instead that Johnson should “address concerns” raised by Grenfell United.
“This epitomises the careless approach this government appears to be taking with the aftermath of this tragedy,” Khan said.
Between 2017 and (************************, Mehra was president of the Women’s Engineering Society charity when it received a grant from the Arconic Foundation. Before the link to the US firm’s charity arm emerged, her appointment had angeredsome in the Grenfell community because she replaced another expert who had greater experience of social housing and community relations, which some believe is lacking in the inquiry leadership.
Grenfell United, the group representing survivors and the bereaved that first discovered Mehra’s link to Arconic, has insisted her position represents a conflict of interest and called for her to stand down. It said it was “a slap in the face”.
Mehra, who was involved in drafting the application for the grant from Arconic, which came through three months after the fire on June 2019, has declined to comment.
The inquiry said on Thursday that Mehra’s former role “does not affect her impartiality as a panel member”. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said there were “robust processes… [to ensure] any potential conflicts of interest are properly considered and managed”.
The link is particularly sensitive because anger is running high among many survivors at the role played by manufacturers of the combustible cladding and insulation materials used to reclad the tower during its 2018 refurbishment.
The families of 71 victims and survivors are separatelysuing Arconicand other materials manufacturers in the US courts for wrongful death. It has argued any litigation should take place in the UK. The UK government has also banned the use of such panels on high-rise residential buildings.
Downing Street declined to comment on what Johnson said about Mehra in what it described as a private meeting.
However, it said in a statement: “The prime minister reaffirmed his commitment to getting to the truth of what happened, learn lessons and deliver justice for victims. During the meeting, they reflected on the Phase 1 report of the Grenfell inquiry, and looked ahead to the next stage. ”