The government has been accused of “unforgivable cowardice” after it emerged experts hired to test cladding in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire were banned from criticising Theresa May.
A contract signed with engineering firm WSP just 12 days after the disaster stipulated the investigation must not generate “adverse publicity” for the Cabinet Office or other bodies, including Number 10.
Labour MP David Lammy accused Mrs May of trying to “gag firms and charities” in the aftermath of the Grenfell inferno, in which 72 people were killed.
“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, which uncovered the gagging clause: “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 found 40 charities and more than 300 companies had been blocked from publicly criticising the Government.
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett claimed 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.”
Lib Dem housing spokeswoman Wera Hobhouse said: “Rather than gagging experts and prioritising reputational damage, this Conservative Government should be doing everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.
“Taxpayers’ money should never be used to deter people from speaking out.
“Transparency and freedom of speech are vital for a healthy democracy – something this Conservative Government have no regard for.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman insisted: “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 said: “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 joined the chorus of condemnation – and demanded freedom to speak out.
National Council for Voluntary Organisations chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington 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.
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