Boris Johnson has reportedly told Grenfell survivors he will investigate the appointment of a key member of the inquiry panel, after she was linked to the firm which made the tower’s deadly cladding.
It was announced shortly before Christmas that Benita Mehra would replace academic Professor Nabeel Hamdi on the panel for the second phase of the inquiry, which is due to begin this year.
It has since been disclosed that Ms Mehra is an immediate past president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) which, according to the society’s website, last year received funding from the Arconic Foundation for an apprentice conference.
Arconic supplied the cladding on the outside of the west London tower block, which went up in flames on June 14 2017, claiming 72 lives.
The Guardian, who revealed the links, reported today that Mr Johnson had met with representatives of the Grenfell community at a pre-arranged visit to Downing Street last night.
Mr Johnson reportedly told representatives he would investigate the appointment.
In a statement, Downing Street said: “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.”
John Healey MP, Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary, said Ms Mehra’s appointment was “a thoughtless decision by Boris Johnson who personally picked this panellist.”
He added: “The Grenfell Inquiry must command the confidence of those affected by the fire and the public. This appointment undermines that.
“Boris Johnson should reverse his decision to appoint Benita Mehra and apologise.”
A report following the first phase of the inquiry concluded in October last year that the cladding did not comply with building regulations and was the “principal” reason for the fire’s rapid and “profoundly shocking” spread.
Arconic said a “confluence of unfortunate circumstances” rather than the “mere presence” of the panels had caused the spread of the fire.
The second phase of the public inquiry will examine the causes and circumstances of the blaze.
Ms Mehra’s appointment – after Professor Hamdi was unable to proceed – was requested in a letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent on December 20, and was announced three days later, after receiving the consent of inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
Karim Mussilhy, vice-chairman of the survivors and bereaved group Grenfell United, has raised concerns as to any link between Ms Mehra and Arconic.
“How can she sit next to Sir Martin Moore-Bick when Arconic will be on the stand and is one of the organisations we need answers from in terms of what caused the deaths of our loved ones?” she told the Guardian.
“Her society has been supported by Arconic. She will look at it from the perspective of Arconic doing good things for the industry, that they are a great organisation. Her perspective will be affected.”
But a spokeswoman for the inquiry said they do not believe Ms Mehra’s former role with the WES will have any influence on her ability to be impartial.
“The consideration and appointment of panel members is a matter for the Cabinet Office,” said the spokeswoman.
“The Inquiry does not consider that Benita Mehra’s former presidency of the Women’s Engineering Society in any way affects her impartiality as a panel member.”
A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said: “There are robust processes in place to ensure the Grenfell Tower Inquiry remains independent and that any potential conflicts of interest are properly considered and managed.
“The Arconic Foundation donated to a specific scheme which provides mentoring for women in engineering, and is unrelated to the issues being considered by the inquiry.”
Ms Mehra was formerly director of strategic assets and property, and has 16 years of experience working with the British Airports Authority in areas including risk assessment and property management.
Grenfell United has previously lamented the loss of Professor Hamdi from the panel, saying he was the only person there with experience in the community.