Engineer Benita Mehra has resigned from the Grenfell Inquiry panel following revelations about her links to the manufacturers of the tower’s cladding
With the inquiry’s crucial second phase starting later today (27 January), it remains unclear who will replace Mehra – herself a replacement for the architect Nabeel Hamdi, who left the panel last year.
Mehra’s letter of resignation to the Prime Minister came in the wake criticism over potential conflicts of interest with Arconic, the supplier of the cladding used on the block.
Earlier this month it was uncovered that Mehra had been a former president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Three years ago the society received funding from the Arconic Foundation for an apprentice conference.
The probe’s first phase report into the blaze that killed 72 people in June 2017 found that the Arconic-manufactured aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding acted as a ‘source of fuel’ for the blaze.
Mehra’s letter to prime minister Boris Johnson read: ‘As you know, I had hoped to draw on my experience and knowledge of the construction industry, of community engagement and of governance within housing management to contribute to the vital work of the inquiry in discovering how and why the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower happened.
‘However, it is apparent that my former role as president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which in 2017 accepted a charitable donation from the Arconic Charitable Foundation to support the mentoring of women engineers, has caused serious concern to a number of the bereaved, survivors and resident core participants.’
Mehra, whose role at the society was unpaid, said that money from Arconic had always been ring-fenced solely for the mentoring scheme.
‘For these reasons, I did not link any aspect of my former role as president of the [society] to my panel member role for the Grenfell Tower inquiry. In hindsight, this was a regrettable oversight on my part.’
In response, the government acknowledged that Mehra’s resignation had been made ‘out of respect for the bereaved’ and added that Cabinet Office continued ‘to believe that there [was] no conflict of interest that would have prevented you from taking part in the inquiry’.
But community group Grenfell United, which represents many of the families of the bereaved, said: ‘Benita Mehra has done the dignified thing by resigning. Her resignation helps lift growing anxiety ahead of phase two.
The government should never have put the families in this position
‘However the government should never have put the families in this position, they failed to carry out basic checks and understand the importance and sensitivities around a fair and proper process.’
The group added: ‘The government promised two panel members and must now urgently find a new panellist to bring expertise on community relations to the inquiry. We do not need the pretence of diversity for the sake of diversity’.
Mehra’s appointment had been controversial from the start with Grenfell United stating it was ‘hugely disappointing’ that she had been brought in to replace Hamdi.
The campaigners claimed the ‘big change’ to the panel line-up had been made without a ‘proper explanation’ and that it showed the wishes of the fire’s survivors were being ignored.
Architect Nabeel Hamdi had been due to sit on the three-person panel for phase two of the inquiry.
Hamdi is an emeritus professor of housing at Oxford Brookes University who, according to the university, qualified as an architect at the Architectural Association in 1968. He worked for the Greater London Council between 1969 and 1978, where his housing projects cemented his reputation ‘in participatory design and planning’.
But a letter sent at the end of last year by the prime minister to inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick revealed that Hamdi was ‘unable to proceed with the appointment’, and proposed Mehra as a stand-in.
Mehra had said she would give up her job as director of strategic assets at the London Ambulance Service to take part in the inquiry.
Grenfell United said at the time that the replacement of a community-minded expert with an engineer was ‘not what is needed’, adding that ‘yet again wishes of survivors and bereaved have been sidelined’.
This is the right decision but why on earth did @BorisJohnson put Benita Mehra and the Grenfell community in this position in the first place? And who will replace her given the Inquiry resumes next week? The PM must come to the Commons on Monday to apologise and give answers. https://t.co/Pon2yBTpWM— John Healey MP (@JohnHealey_MP) January 25, 2020