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.

The Cabinet Office insisted the clause was a standard feature of contracts across the public and private sector and was not aimed at silencing whistleblowers or criticism of government policy.

WSP were one of more than 300 companies and 40 charities that have been blocked from voicing public disapproval of the government, according to claims by The Times.

Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, accused Ms 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 no one should be deterred from speaking out over the disaster.

“The focus at every level of government must be to get to the truth about how and why Grenfell happened,” the group said in a statement.

The massive fire that broke out in Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June last year claimed the lives of 72 people, injured at least 70 more and left hundreds homeless.

The rapid spread of the blaze following the malfunction of a fridge freezer on the fourth floor of the block has been attributed to cladding installed during renovation work, which took place in 2015 and 2016.

The Cabinet Office hired WSP less than a fortnight after the fire to advise officials on whether cladding used during refurbishment work on the estate had complied with building regulations. 

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The contract, worth £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 Ms May about their ability to speak out.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), called for the government provide clarity over the clauses. 

“It's vital that charities are able to criticise and provide feedback on government programmes and how they affect the people they work with,” he said. 

“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.”

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.”

Additional reporting by PA



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