Fury over ‘gagging clause’ in post-Grenfell safety check contract

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Ministers have been accused of “unforgivable cowardice” after it was revealed that experts hired to test cladding 12 days after the Grenfell Tower fire were banned from criticising Theresa May.

A contract signed with engineering firm WSP stated that it must not generate “adverse publicity” for the Cabinet Office or other Crown bodies, including the Prime Minister’s office, the Times reported.

The Cabinet Office insisted the clause was a standard feature of contracts across the public and private sector and did not prevent people acting as whistle-blowers or raising concerns about policy.

But Labour politicians and campaigners reacted with fury.

Tottenham MP David Lammy accused Mrs May of trying to “gag firms and charities” in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy.

“This shows unforgivable cowardice,” he said. “If you respected the 72 that died, you would have let firms follow the truth wherever it led.”

The Grenfell United campaign group told the Times: “The focus at every level of government must be to get to the truth about how and why Grenfell happened. No-one should be deterred from speaking out.”

A wider investigation by the newspaper found that 40 charities and more than 300 companies had been blocked from publicly criticising the Government.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said it was “hypocritical” because Mrs May had vowed to crack down on the use of non-disclosure agreements.

“Civil society organisations are often best placed to speak out when government gets it wrong. When they can’t, our democracy is worse off for it,” he said.

“The Conservatives seem to regard this as a fair price to avoid bad headlines, yet it’s public money that pays for it and it’s the public interest that suffers.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Standard contracts in the public and the private sector contain provisions to protect the commercial interests of government and its suppliers in a reasonable way.

“These contracts do not prevent individuals from campaigning on specific issues, acting as whistle-blowers or raising concerns about policy.”

The Cabinet Office signed the deal with WSP to advise officials on whether cladding used by the government estate complied with building regulations on June 26 last year.

The contract, for £100,000 plus VAT, stated the company should make sure that neither it nor anyone working for it should “embarrass” or be “in any way connected to material adverse publicity” relating to the Cabinet Office or other Crown bodies.

A WSP spokesman told the Times: “We helped the Cabinet Office’s government property unit understand which types of cladding used across the UK Government’s estate are unlikely to comply with building regulations so that the tragedy at Grenfell doesn’t ever happen again.”

Charities have also criticised the use of so-called gagging clauses and have sought clarity from Mrs May about their ability to speak out.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), said: “It’s vital that charities are able to criticise and provide feedback on government programmes and how they affect the people they work with.

“Given the nature of their work, charities have real insight into how these policies are working in the real world. And they speak up for people who just aren’t heard in Whitehall.

“This issue has rumbled on for some time and we are calling on the Government to provide absolute clarity about whether these clauses, in any way, should prevent charities from speaking out.

“I have written today to the Prime Minister to ask her to confirm whether these clauses would prevent charities from publicly expressing concern about a particular policy or programme.”

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union said: “This is extremely concerning. When it comes to fire safety, there should always be full transparency, only then can we learn from the mistakes of the past.

The Grenfell Inquiry and immediate measures which need to be taken to ensure safety, should be a priority for this government. This gagging order prevents an honest discussion about the issues – the public have a right to know what is and is not safe.”

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