Government ‘gagging clause’ for Grenfell contract criticised

Government ‘gagging clause’ for Grenfell contract criticised

THE GOVERNMENT has been ‘heavily criticised’ for contracts given to companies hired to test cladding post Grenfell that banned ‘adverse publicity’ for the Cabinet Office and other bodies.

Shropshire Star reported on the contracts given to experts hired to test cladding 12 days after the Grenfell Tower fire, which stated that companies must not generate ‘adverse publicity’ for the Cabinet Office or other Crown bodies, including the Prime Minister’s office. A wider investigation on this note found that 40 charities and over 300 companies had been ‘blocked from publicly criticising’ the government.

The contract seen by news outlets involved company WSP, which was hired to advise Cabinet Office officials on whether cladding used complied with building regulations, but the text stated that 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.

In response, the Cabinet Office said that the clause was a ‘standard feature’ of public and private sector contracts, and did not prevent people from acting as ‘whistle-blowers’ or ‘raising concerns’. Charities were also critical of the language used, and sought clarity from the Prime Minister ‘about their ability to speak out’, while opposition politicians such as Tottenham MP David Lammy said that the decision showed ‘unforgivable cowardice’.

Mr Lammy stated that ‘if you respected the 72 that died [at Grenfell], you would have let firms follow the truth wherever it led’, while the Grenfell United campaign group added: ‘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.’

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett also said the move was ‘hypocritical’ because the Prime Minister had ‘vowed to crack down’ on non disclosure agreements. He added: ‘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. 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.’

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, commented: ‘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.’

A Cabinet Office spokesman also noted: ‘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.’