Uttlesford District Council's controversial £35m land deal with arms firm Moog: Council apologises after threatening to mute UN human rights campaigner for mentioning company's name during online public meeting
A human rights campaigner who has addressed the United Nations was threatened with being muted by Uttlesford District Council during an online meeting after she criticised its controversial £35m investment deal involving a global company that supplies weapons manufacturers.
Dr Sanjukta Ghosh is the wife of Stansted parish councillor Daniel Brett, who exposed the deal between UDC's Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) administration and American firm Moog Inc. for land to develop a state-of-the-art UK headquarters in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.
Moog is a New York-based worldwide designer and manufacturer of precision components and control systems for use in missiles and military aircraft as well as in satellites, space vehicles, automated industrial machinery and marine and medical equipment. It has sales, engineering and manufacturing facilities in 26 countries, and its space products played a critical role in the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars.
Dr Ghosh was addressing an online meeting of the full district council via its live broadcast when she mentioned Moog. As she read out a statement expressing "utter revulsion" at the deal and called on the council to cancel its investment, councillors interjected to stop her from further mentioning Moog's name.
"I thought we were going to mute when that happened," said R4U deputy leader Cllr Petrina Lees (R4U, Henham and Elsenham).
UDC chairman Cllr Martin Foley (Ind, Thaxted and the Eastons) warned Dr Ghosh: "I ask you to be careful, doctor. Please refrain otherwise we may have to mute you. Please continue, but be careful."
Vice-chair Cllr Arthur Coote (R4U, Saffron Walden Shire) added: "We are using words we cannot use... the speaker is naming something that has not been named in public, as far as I am aware."
In fact, the story has been featured in the Bishop's Stortford Independent and national online newspaper The Independent, sparking condemnation from international charity Oxfam and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Dr Ghosh, who has addressed the UN on human rights issues during her 20 years of campaigning, told the Stortford Indie later that she found her treatment during the meeting "humiliating".
"Anyone who works in human rights knows the company and their presence in the UK. It was as if the council tried to pretend I was leaking information that was classified, which wasn't the case – it was all in the public domain," she said.
"There was no exchange of information beforehand as to what I could or couldn't say in the meeting, and to say in public that I could be muted was quite humiliating.
"I have experience of advocacy work at UN level in presenting on human rights, but even then I am not shut up, and you have to give that space when allowing the public to speak."
She said that Cllr Lees' comment suggested "there was an agreement beforehand that if this crops up they will mute the person".
The meeting, on Tuesday February 23, had to be adjourned after three hours as there was not enough time to get through the agenda. It reconvened 48 hours later (Thu Feb 25) for another lengthy, four-hour session to conclude business.
As the second part of the meeting got under way, the UDC chairman issued an apology.
Cllr Foley said: "On behalf of the public, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to a public speaker at the previous session, Dr Ghosh, who was interrupted during her statement on Tuesday due to concerns regarding commercial confidentiality and that specific detail was being raised in a public broadcast.
"On that same note, I would urge caution and remind members that they are not to reference any commercially sensitive detail during the meeting."
Dr Ghosh said later that she was aware an apology had been made but had received no written confirmation. "I haven't received any letter or email explaining what they are sorry for, it was just mentioned verbally at the meeting, but I would have expected a written apology to explain the reasons why I was stopped from talking and the context of why they stopped me."
UDC's Liberal Democrat and Green Party groups concluded Thursday's meeting by issuing a statement disassociating themselves from the council's decision to invest in land for Moog's UK HQ and its association with violations of human rights against the civilian population of Yemen.
It followed the passing of a motion proposed by the two parties seeking to establish an ethical investment protocol – R4U amended the original motion to remove any reference to human rights violations.
Lib Dem group leader Cllr Alan Dean (Stansted North) said: “We abhor these atrocities brought to our attention by residents of the district and by Oxfam.
"We condemn the lack of openness when this investment proposal was put to the [council's] investment board in December and the council in January. These issues were not brought to members’ attention by the cabinet. This was a failure of good governance and due diligence."
Fellow Stansted North Lib Dem Cllr Geoffrey Sell added: “Until I googled the company in the investment board meeting, members were ignorant of any significant details of the military uses of the company’s products. It was then that I raised these ethical issues. They had not been mentioned in our officers’ recommendation to the investment board.”
Joint leader of the UDC Greens Cllr Paul Fairhurst (Saffron Walden Shire) said: "We consider the council’s governance of its investment profile to be deficient. We consider members’ training in their investment role to be inadequate. We consider the absence of an ethical investment policy, despite nearly two years of asking for one, to be a major failure of governance at Uttlesford.”
The joint party statement was signed by all five UDC Lib Dem members – Cllrs Dean, Sell, Melvin Caton and Ayub Khan (both Stansted South) and Janice Loughlin (Stort Valley) – and Green Party duo Cllrs Fairhurst and Barbara Light.
During discussion on the amended motion proposed by Cllr Neil Reeve (R4U, Broad Oak and the Hallingburys), UDC's portfolio holder for the economy, investment and corporate strategy, in which the council commended its commitment to ethical integrity and the requirement to formulate a protocol to include ethical and environmental considerations, councillors questioned the damage done to the authority's reputation.
Cllr Sell said: "We are trying to avoid reputational damage, but we have become a laughing stock and the information is out there – in the Bishop's Stortford Independent [and national newspapers]. We had a choice, we could have avoided it – we ignored it and we are paying the price."
Cllr Light (Green, Saffron Walden Audley) said that she had worn black for the meeting as she was in mourning "for the children killed every 10 minutes in Yemen".
"I ask any one of you, can you live with that knowledge on your conscience?" she said. "Our investments must be ethical, must promote the good and must abide by the highest ethical standards. We should not invest in any company that promotes death and destroys life."
Cllr Stuart Luck (R4U, Debden and Wimbish) claimed that the public had been misled over the investment, which was to do with land purchase and not with the company. "That needs to be made clear to the public and I am happy that we continue with our investment board making the decisions as they do at the moment," he said.
Cllr Patrick Lavelle (R4U, Great Dunmow South and Barnston) added: "We are not investing in companies, only purchasing land which comes with leases. We have considered the ethical implications of the companies who are leaseholder – many have a wide range of interests and involvement."